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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe
Merlin Gröber

The Lives of Locals

Updated on 13.03.2022 in People, Photos: Charly Schwarz

For many visitors to Tirol, contact with the locals is limited to the ski lifts, hotels and supermarket checkouts. But what are Tiroleans really like? We headed away from the pistes and bars to find out more about the lives of locals.

The Naviser Hütte is a hut in the Tux Alps at 1,787 metres above sea level. It is popular destination for locals who enjoy tobogganing.
The Naviser Hütte is a hut in the Tux Alps at 1,787 metres above sea level. It is popular destination for locals who enjoy tobogganing.

Cars, buses, tram, people waiting patiently to cross the road – a city-centre crossroads like any other, you could be forgiven for thinking, except for one small detail: the tiny little red and green figures telling pedestrians when to stop and when to go all carry some kind of sports gear. One has a snowboard tucked smartly under his arm, another is wearing a rucksack. A few metres away, on the huge wall of the university's main library, stand the words: "Welcome to the alpine-urban campus". Welcome, indeed. Welcome to Tirol.

Next to the university, to the north, lies the Inn river the lifeblood of the region. On the concrete walls several metres above the water sit dozens of young people in small groups. They chat, laugh, eat sushi with chopsticks and tuck into burritos wrapped in glistening tun foil, stopping occasionally to wash down their meal with a soft drink or a beer.

The burble of voices merges with the rushing water to create a soundtrack to be found day by day, night by night when the weather is fine. Visitors to Tirol generally walk on by, on their way to the next sightseeing attraction. But what if you stopped, listened –  maybe even asked a question? Tirol is a very popular holiday destination, attracting millions of guests each year. Many of them know the "basics", for example that the region's highest mountains is the Großglockner (3,798 metres) and that each January the resort of Kitzbühel hosts the world's most famous downhill race on the fearsome "Streif" piste. But what about the people themselves? A total of 56,000 people work in Tirol's tourism industry, yet contact between locals and holidaymakers is often limited to a brief "Hallo" as you get on the ski lift, a friendly smile as you pick up your key from reception, or a wordless transaction as you pick up a few bits and pieces from the supermarket. We decided to head away from the pistes and bars in a quest to find Tiroleans in their natural habitat.

Innsbruck – an urban funpark

On the wall overlooking the Inn river sit Lukas (27) and Simon (32), two brothers from the village of Axams just outside Innsbruck. They are both wearing black jackets, a pair of headphones around their neck and a pair of dark jeans. Lunch comes in the form of burritos from "Machete – Burrito Kartell" just down the road, washed down with a bottle of beer. "Welcome to the weekend," laughs Lukas. It may only be Thursday, but as they say: "It doesn't matter. The weekend is whenever we want it to be."

Each of Innsbruck's 130,000 inhabitants has their own view of the city. For Simon, Innsbruck is "a place where people are in a good mood". The city is shaped in many ways by its university – of the 130,000 people who live here, 30,000 are students. The result, explains Simon, is a chilled-out vibe with lots of people from different places and backgrounds. "In spring you see downhill mountainbikers with full-face helmets mingling with skiers who have just come down from the mountains – all that alongside people buying groceries in flipflops and others heading home from work in sharp suits," adds Lukas. Mountain and valley, summer and winter, relaxing and working – a harmony of contrasts.

Lukas, 27, and Simon, 32, are two brothers from the village of Axams near Innsbruck.
Lukas, 27, and Simon, 32, are two brothers from the village of Axams near Innsbruck.

Life by the Inn

The Inn is Tirol's largest river and traverses the region from west to east. The walls and walking paths which line the banks of the river are a popular meeting place among students, holidaymakers and everyone else keen for a time-out in the centre of the city.

Just five minutes away by bike (the most popular mode of transport in the city) is the Landhausplatz square. It is full of young skater guys and girls in baggy trousers and beanies, plus a few kids on scooters. The vast areas of smooth tarmac coupled with the odd rail here and there are the perfect terrain for skateboarding. Two boys in XXL T-shirts are busy practising heelflips. Leander and Christian, both 16 years old, have been skating the Landhausplatz for around a year. "Five times a week," says Christian. As he flips and kicks his board through the air, a small crucifix dances around his neck. "We teach each other new tricks," adds Leander. What do their parents think of their hobby? "As long as we still have enough time for school, no problem." Talking of school, Leander has to head off home to finish a piece of homework. A quick handshake followed by a sholder-bump and he scoots off, a few short pushes enough to get him up to full speed on his skateboard.

Just a few metres away, Paul is standing with his six-year-old son Theo on a set of wooden stairs showing him how to ride down them on his bike. "Shift your weight back," he calls out. "That's it, perfect!" Paul has lived in Innsbruck since 1999 but originally comes from the Tirolean Oberland in the west of the region "I needed more space," he explains. He works as a mountain guide and enjoys mountain-biking, particularly on the steep and challenging trails around the city. Innsbruck, he says, is a city which draws in sporty people and produces plenty of new ones. "Sports-loving parents produce sports-loving kids," he laughs as he watches Theo zoom down the stairs.

Seeing the world from a different perspective

So far, it seems that Tirol's locals like many of the same things that attract visitors to the region. My journey takes me onto Maria-Theresien-Straße, the main shopping street in the centre of Innsbruck, past the boutiques and restaurants to a building with stained glass windows. Out front there is a sign reading: "Eine Heimsuchung aus der Zukunft" ("A Visitation from the Future"). It is the name of an exhibition by Nina Höchtl currently on show at the Kunstraum. I make my way through the charming stone courtyard to a set of stairs leading up to a glass door splattered with dabs of pink paint. Inside, the lights are dimmed. It takes a while for my eyes to adapt to the gloom. After a while I am able to make out several long washing lines on which hang T-shirts bearing phrases and statements. On a large screen is an installation running over and over again. A voice talks of the ongoing colonialism dominating our world. Downhill biking and ski lifts seem a long way away all of a sudden.

A woman in a pair of billowing trousers is sitting on a carpet made from cactus fibres. She moves her hand back and forth in a rythmic motion as she applies white paint to T-shirts. It is Nina Höchtl, the artist behind the exhibition. Nina, who is in her early fourties, spends most of her time in Mexico but has returned to the city where her parents are from in order to put on this show combining exhibits and installations. What drives her to make art, I ask. "Art makes it possible to see the world from a different perspective and also helps other people get a fresh perspective on certain topics," she explains. Sitting next to her is Alex, a curator and artist. "Art has a tough time in Innsbruck," he says, underlining the need for better financial support, greater cooperation and more art on display in public spaces. The paint on the T-shirt has dried. Nina carefully removes the template from the material to reveal the words "Hasta que nuestra muerte no sea normal" – in English: "Until our death is no longer normal". It is a statement against the ongoing femicide crisis in Mexico, where every day ten women are killed – often by their husbands or partners. "Art absolutely has the righ to be political," says Nina. Murders in Mexico seem a million miles away from the relatively safe and sedate Innsbruck. "I want to raise awareness about certain problems and build bridges," Nina tells me at the end of my visit.

The Kunstraum Innsbruck specialises in modern and contemporary art.
The Kunstraum Innsbruck specialises in modern and contemporary art.

Artist Nina Höchtl's exbition at the Kunstraum Innsbruck focuses on issues such as power, colonialism and femicide.
Artist Nina Höchtl's exbition at the Kunstraum Innsbruck focuses on issues such as power, colonialism and femicide.

Places of culture

Innsbruck is home to many art galleries and around two dozen museums including the Tirolean Folk Art Museum, the Zeughaus and even an Anatomical Museum. The centuries-old bellfoundry Glockengießerei Grassmayr also has its own museum providing a fascinating insight into how these huge cast-iron bells are made.

Off the beaten track

I travel 15 minutes downriver to the town of Hall in Tirol. Every Saturday there is a market here in the medieval oldtown with its narrow cobblestone treets. I cound around a dozen stands: wooden huts selling produce from the local region such as cheeses, hams and jams. As the clock strikes nine, things are already busy. Brussel sprouts are packed away into paper bags; cheese is sliced, weighed and wrapped. In front of one stand I observe two women. There has, it seems, been a hit-and-run in the neighbourhood. The victim? A wooden fence. Nobody knows who it was, but they have an idea who it could have been. The two quickly round off their shop with a dozen eggs (2 euros) before heading home to continue their enquiries. Just a few metres away is the vegetable stand run by the Lutz family. Green plastic crates full of carrots, sprouts and beetroots: "Most of our customers are locals – that's the same for almost all the stands here at this market."

Saturday is market day in Hall in Tirol. Around a dozen stands are dotted across the square selling fresh, regional produce.
Saturday is market day in Hall in Tirol. Around a dozen stands are dotted across the square selling fresh, regional produce.

Places of consumption

Hall in Tirol is home to around 14,000 people and lies to the east of Innsbruck, the regional capital of Tirol. Hall is known to have one of the largest and best-preserved oldtowns in Austria. At the heart of it lies the Oberer Stadtplatz, where a market is held each Saturday. This cobblestone square dates back to the Middle Ages and is lined on all sides by mighty townhouses built centuries ago when Hall in Tirol was a major centre of salt mining.

The market in Hall and the Kunstraum art gallery in Innsbruck are places rarely visited by holidaymakers. After all, why go out and buy eggs when your hotel offers breakfast, lunch and dinner? Winter visitors in particular tend to spend most, if not all, of their time in the resort. After a long day in the fresh mountain air followed by a hot sauna and a hearty dinner, a sleep on the couch seems much more tempting than a trip to the city. But should that really be the case – or is it worth getting up the motivation to get out and explore?

A world away

From the farmers' market in Hall, my journey takes me back to Innsbruck and then straight onto the motorway heading south towards the Brenner – the main mountain pass connecting Austria and Italy. After 25 minutes on the motorway I turn off to Navis. With its farmsteads, guesthouses and a small draglift for local kids learning to ski, it is a world away from the big city life of Innsbruck and the hustle and bustle of Hall in Tirol on market day. On the edge of the village there are two churches. "Mass used to be celebrated in the old church," explains Walter and points to the building with a traditional onion-shaped belltower. He tells me that over time this church fell into disrepair. Eventually it was decided that a new one should be built nearby using as much material as possible from the old church.

We get onto talking about the village. Walter tells me that he has lived here "forever", which in his case means almost 80 years. He used to help out at the ski lift and still goes to church every week. Why? "Because I always have done." I meet Valentina, who is also on her way to church. She has also lived in Navis her whole life. "In a valley like this, the church is a big part of the community," she says, though she is keen to emphasise that all are welcome, including people not from Navis. "It is nice to have someone new with different ideas and opinions." As we step inside the church, the birdsong and sunlight of the outside world suddenly disappear. It is dark and quiet. I can see families with young children sitting on the wooden pews. Youngsters stand together in a group next to the whitewashed walls. A man with grey hair leans against the wall next to the heavy wooden door – next to him a girl in a black-and-white blazer standing on tiptoes. Again and again the door swings open. Regulars greet each other with a nod and a smile. By the time the service begins, the church is almost full. The girl in the blazer smooths out her brother's crooked collar. The organ begins to play and the priest strides out to address his flock.

The old parish church in Navis was damaged by a landslide in the early 1960s. Parts of it were later used to build a new church on the same site.
The old parish church in Navis was damaged by a landslide in the early 1960s. Parts of it were later used to build a new church on the same site.

Places of faith

The old parish church in Navis had to be closed in the 1960s after a landslide. Parts of the old church were used to build a new one in 1966/67, which still stands today.

Downhill to normal life

Four hundred vertical metres above the church lies the Naviser Hütte. This traditional wooden mountain hut is a popular family destination in winter. After walking up through the forest, visitors can hire a toboggans from the hut and whizz back down into the valley. Before that, however, it's time for a reward for all that leg-work – a cool drink in the sun.

Outside the hut I watch the children play. Some of them have built a jump in the snow while others are hard at work making a snowman. I see a boy approaching with his father – Linus and Andi. "We come up here quite a lot," says Andi, who lives with his family near Innsbruck. At weekends they like to go tobogganing at the many huts around the city, "like lots of other locals." Before we can talk any more, Linus pulls on his hand. Time to go and get a bowl of soup.

Blog author Merlin Gröber hard at work.
Blog author Merlin Gröber hard at work.

The Naviser Hütte is a hut in the mountains where locals enjoy tobogganing in winter.
The Naviser Hütte is a hut in the mountains where locals enjoy tobogganing in winter.

Places of adventure

The easy toboggan run leading down from the Naviser Hütte is great for families. Its high altitude means there is plenty of snow all season and conditions do not get icy.

My quest to go behind the scenes and find out who the Tiroleans really are is drawing to a close. Away from the ski lifts and hotels they can be found tobogganing in the mountains, praying in the churches, doing the weekly shop at the local market, chilling by the river, visiting local galleries and museums. They never seem to be in a hurry – in their free time, at least. This slower pace of life is also good for visitors. All too often, when we are on holiday, we rush from one place to the next. Only rarely do we take the time to stop and talk to the locals. Tirol is the perfect place to do just that. Who knows, with a little luck you may discover new places, learn about ancient customs or get a few inside tips on the best things to see and do. If you do chat to the locals, be prepared to not only ask questions but also answer them: Where do you come from? What has brought you to Tirol? How do you like it here?

Three-year-old Linus has no time for such questions. He wants to head off home. By the time I see him again he has eaten his soup and is already on his toboggan ready to go. His father gives him a push and they're off down the slope along the trail leading back down to normal life.

Window fitter, goldsmith, bouncer. And now a freelance journalist. Studied history, ethnology and communication in Freiburg, Munich and Canada. A graduate of the German School of Journalism. Prefers sleeping outside to inside – and whenever possible in Tirol.

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